staring at the newcomer would of course offend the canons of good behaviour, the other residents did show considerable covert interest in her arrival.

“Good afternoon. Let me introduce the latest addition to our little family.” Miss Naismith was prone, in her public utterances, to a rather cloying whimsicality. Turning first, as was correct, to the gentlemen in the bay window, she began the round. “Colonel Wicksteed – Mrs Pargeter.”

“Enchanted.” He shook her hand and the rigid back bent as though hinged. Miss Wardstone’s reptile eyes flashed a look of what could almost have been jealousy at the newcomer.

“Mr Dawlish – Mrs Pargeter.”

Dawlish rose from his chair to his full height (which wasn’t very high) and clasped the heavily ringed hand. “Delighted to make your acquaintance. I do hope you’ll be very happy here.”

Then he bent down to retrieve his rug from the floor, contriving on his way up to sneak a covert glance at the pleasing roundness of Mrs Pargeter’s calves.

Miss Naismith moved on to the ladies. “Lady Ridgleigh…” A bony aristocratic hand was graciously proffered. “May I introduce Mrs Pargeter?”

Lady Ridgleigh smiled the sort of smile she had seen the Queen use when greeting Commonwealth leaders.

“My husband knew a Pargeter in the Guards. Cedric Pargeter, I believe it was. I don’t suppose, by any chance…?”

“No, shouldn’t think so.”

Lady Ridgleigh’s smile changed to the sort used by the Queen when being kept waiting by Commonwealth leaders. But she persevered.

“May have got the name wrong. Froggie was terrible with names. Perhaps it was a Cecil or a Cyril or…”

“It wouldn’t matter. I’ve never known anyone who was in the Guards.”

“Oh.” This was said with satisfaction. Lady Ridgleigh lived in constant fear of being outranked by new arrivals at the Devereux. It was comforting to know that Mrs Pargeter presented no such threat.

The Grand Tour continued. “And this is Eulalie Vance.”

The actress looked up from her peppermint tea, waiting a half-second for Mrs Pargeter to say, “Oh yes, of course, I know that name. Aren’t you the Eulalie Vance who gave that wonderful performance in…?”

But since no such words of recognition were forthcoming, Eulalie shook the new arrival’s hand and comforted herself with the thought that here was someone who had not yet heard the secrets of her passionate past.

“Miss Wardstone, this is Mrs Pargeter.”

“How very nice to meet you.” The tortoise face was bisected by the horizontal line of a smile, but the eyes still darted suspiciously.

“Mrs Selsby…No, please don’t get up.”

But Miss Naismith’s words were too late. The long bones unfolded as Mrs Selsby levered herself from the sofa to a precariously upright position.

“No trouble,” she said. “I’m quite safe, you know.” But the trembling of her body and short-sighted blinking belied her words.

“Pleased to meet you.” As she spoke, Mrs Pargeter gently took hold of a thin elbow and lowered its owner back down. Through the wool of the cardigan it felt as if there was no skin, only bone. Around the thin neck, Mrs Pargeter noticed, clung a double string of artificial pearls.

“And, er, this is Mrs Mendlingham.”

The washed-out eyes remained unfocused, fixed on nothingness in the middle of the room.

“Mrs Mendlingham.” Miss Naismith did not actually raise her voice, but she reinforced it with considerable emphasis.

The old eyes flickered with realisation, then with alarm. “Yes, of course. I was listening.”

“I don’t believe you’ve met Mrs Pargeter.”

Mrs Mendlingham, suddenly cunning, misread the intonation of Miss Naismith’s words. “Oh yes, of course I have.”

She rose energetically from her armchair and shook the hand of a bewildered Mrs Pargeter, who had never seen her before. The old eyes looked at Miss Naismith, as if gauging the proprietress’s reaction. But they seemed disappointed in what they saw, and again lost focus as Mrs Mendlingham slumped back into her chair.

Miss Naismith lingered for a moment, discreetly but suspiciously sniffing. Mrs Pargeter, too, thought that she could detect a slightly unwelcome smell.

But no comment was made. “Well, that’s everyone,” Miss Naismith announced. “I do hope you’ll be happy with us. Now do tell Loxton how you like your tea.”

The waitress came dutifully forward as her name was spoken.

“Oh, hello, love. Like my tea good and strong, thank you.”

“Indian or China?”

Mrs Pargeter looked bewildered. “Well, Indian, of course.”

Lady Ridgleigh gave an inward smile, vestiges of which appeared on her lips. There was certainly going to be no social contest with Mrs Pargeter. Indeed, Lady Ridgleigh might even find herself enjoying the rare pleasure of ‘slumming’.

“Well, Mrs Pargeter, do take a seat. I’m sure you’re tired after your journey.”

“No. Fine. Only come from London. And did stop for lunch on the way.”

“I’m sure you could still do with putting your feet up, Mrs Pargeter.” Once again, without being raised in volume, Miss Naismith’s voice took on a steely edge.

“Very well, then.” Mrs Pargeter flopped into a vacant armchair. “Oh, incidentally, everyone…”

Hands froze on teacups. Scones were suspended between plate and mouth. They were not used to this. Residents of the Devereux were not in the habit of addressing the room at large. It was acceptable for Miss Naismith to make general announcements; it was allowable for anyone to come in from outside and pass an undirected remark about the weather; but residents of the Devereux did not address ‘everyone’ in this bald fashion.

Mrs Pargeter continued, either impervious to or ignoring the reaction she had provoked. “Please don’t call me Mrs Pargeter. I’ve never been one for formality. Everyone always calls me by my Christian name. So please will you?”

“And what is your Christian name?” asked Miss Naismith with frigid deference. The answer to this question would have great significance. Within her mind she had two rigid lists of names: those that were socially acceptable; and those that transgressed that First Great Commandment of her life, “Thou shalt not be common.”

“Melita,” Mrs Pargeter replied.

Miss Naismith was confused. Melita was such an unusual name that she had difficulty in deciding under which heading it should belong.

This confusion reflected a more general uncertainty in her reaction to Mrs Pargeter. Her first instinct had been to classify the newcomer immediately as socially inferior. And yet, the longer she spent with her, the more difficult Miss Naismith found it to classify Mrs Pargeter at all.

And the more she began to suspect, with a degree of foreboding, that there might be more to Mrs Pargeter than met the eye.

? A Nice Class of Corpse ?


By five to six Newth had changed from his white porter’s jacket into the red one with rolled black lapels that he wore in his role as barman. The Schooner Bar was on the ground floor, the other side of the Entrance Hall from the Seaview Lounge. It also commanded a view over the greyness of the March sea.

Newth wiped down the veneered surface of the counter. Wiping it down had been his last action before lowering and locking the grille at lunchtime, but he knew how quickly dust could settle. Though only in his late forties, he had the bachelor fussiness of a much older man.

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